This mysterious, ancient and seductively scented fruit has long been the star of numerous sweet and savoury dishes from a wide variety of cuisines - as well as the muse for generations of kitchen lore.
Quinces (Cydonia oblonga) have most certainly been eaten for millennia. They were sacred fruit to the Goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus, and the ancient Greeks and Romans considered the quince to be a symbol of happiness and fertility. Native to regions in Central and Western Asia, in particular Iran and Caucasus, the fruit is now grown in temperate regions the world over, in fact don't be surprised if a quince tree is happily growing away in your neighborhood. There are two sub-varieties of quince; C. oblonga malformis, as its Latin name suggests, posseses a different shape - more rounded than the usual quince. This fruit sometimes goes by the name of Smyrna quince. The pineapple quince, C. oblonga lusitanica has a somewhat elongated and rectangular shape.
Quinces are laden with the carbohydrate pectin. Anyone that has messed in the kitchen with jams or fruit based jellies will know that pectin is the main requirement for achieving a good setting point for jams, jellies and marmalades. Marmalade brings up an interesting point - quinces are so famous for their preserve making abilities that the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo provides us with the English name for the breakfast spread, marmalade. This is only the beginning of the winding snake that is quince's etymological history. Marmelo was appropriated form the Roman name for quinces, melimelum, or honey apple. The Greeks had their own word - cydonia, which some believe to be taken from the city of Cydon, on the Isle of Crete. In turn, this led to the Italian cotognata, and later the French coing, and then the early English coines, a precursor to the modern quince.
Physiologically speaking, quinces are very similar to the orchard fruits, apples and pears. Both have the same rough shape and both have a tough central core containing the seeds. Quinces however, are much larger - up to a small rockmelon (cantaloupe) in size. Their skin colour ranges from vivid pale green when under-ripe, to a canary-pale yellow when entering ripeness. Fully ripe fruit are bright yellow to deep gold. Quinces also have an unusual fuzzy, brown-coloured down that covers the fruit, and this must be washed away before proceeding with a recipe. Before cooking, they are fairly non-descript, apart from one beguiling characteristic - their heavenly scent. A bowl full of ripe quinces can literally scent a house with delicious honeyed aromas, to the point of being almost overpowering. The Romans harnessed this powerful aroma and extracted an essential oil that they used in perfumes.
Being a fruit, it is not surprising that quinces can find themselves in a wide range of sweet dishes, either simply cooked on their own, or added to fruit tarts, custards, cakes and preserves - there is even a regional Provencal dish, called pan-coudoun, which is a whole quince cooked in bread dough. What is less well known is their ability to be a central ingredient in savoury dishes as well. Middle Eastern cooks, who have long been adept at skillfully partnering fruits with spiced meat dishes, add quinces to a range of recipes, including the wonderful Moroccan tagine.
Quinces are almost never eaten raw, at best they are sliced thinly, briefly sautéed in butter or oil and added to a slow cooked dish. Almost without exception, quinces are cooked slowly - and for a long time. When cooked, quinces transform from a hard, practically inedible item, into a soft, yet densely textured fruit that has a slight graininess. Some people find this grainy mouth-feel unappealing, while others see it as part of the fruit's allure. The last trick up the quinces sleeve is its most vivid and alarming. When cooked very slowly, and for a long period of time, the quinces flesh changes colour from a pale yellow, almost white - to a deep and beguiling ruby red.
Quinces are in season, and therefore plentiful and cheap from mid-autumn through winter. This is the time to buy them in cheap abundance and perhaps try a fruit that is totally new to you. The following recipe is about the most typical style you will find for quince. It involves slowly braising them in sugar and water for several hours - on the stovetop, until they turn an unforgettable scarlet. Once cooked and cooled, the juices will set to an impossibly dense jelly, a result of quince's abundant pectins forming chemical bonds with the sugar, rather than water which they would normally head for. The quinces can be eaten alone, reheated and with some softly whipped cream, the melted quince jelly drizzled around, or included in your favourite fruit tart recipe. Don't be afraid to use quinces in savoury dishes as well, their sweetly rich, yet acidic flavour perfectly harmonizes with flavoursome poultry and game dishes, such as quail, duck, pheasant and rabbit.
Slow braised quinces
Wash the quinces well to remove any furry down adhering to the fruit. Place all ingredients, except the lemon juice, into a medium-sized, heavy-based saucepan. Try to make sure that they make a tight fit. Place the quinces over high heat and boil for 30 minutes, or until the sugar and water forms a thick syrup. Turn the heat down to the gentlest of simmers and cook for a long - long time. Up to 4 or 5 hours. Turn the quinces over several times during the cooking process, as they will not be entirely covered by the syrup. It is important to make sure you cook them at the lowest possible heat - use a simmer mat if you have one. When the cooking time is just about up, and the fruit and syrup has transformed into a deep red colour, add the lemon juice. This will help to cut through the densely sweet taste of the quinces. Remove the pot form the heat and allow to cool.
Pull the quinces out of the dense and sticky syrup, and remove the peel with a small sharp knife. Cut the quinces in half and remove the hard, inedible core. Place the prepared quinces in a container and cover with the syrup. They can now be stored in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks - and used at a moments notice.